Stripping away the beards and the worst-to-first redemption, Tony La Russa sees in the Red Sox an American League champion that is a mirror image of the Cardinals in many ways.
La Russa, who capped his 16-year stretch as St. Louis manager with the 2011 World Series title, appreciates the way both clubs never quit, the way “everybody gets into the competition,” and the way “nothing is nonchalant,” whether it’s in the field or in the batter’s box.
La Russa expects to see a lot of “classic stuff” in the World Series, and he knows both teams will rely on chemistry built throughout the regular season.
“You can talk about how you’re going to come together as a team and respect and trust each other, but you’ve got to do it,” said La Russa, whose insights come with nearly 40 years of major league experience as a player and manager. “What the Red Sox have done, the Cardinals are doing. There are other teams that do it.
“But there are a whole bunch of teams that just don’t pay the price to knit like that. I think it’s a credit to the Red Sox, but they’re playing a team that’s a mirror image as far as chemistry.”
While La Russa no longer watches games from the dugout, he still pulls for St. Louis and for “playing the game right.” In both the Cardinals and Red Sox, he sees respect for the fundamentals, putting team before fame and fortune. That made Game 1 at Fenway Park on Wednesday night exciting for La Russa, though in a much different way from when he faced the Red Sox in the 2004 World Series.
La Russa now serves as a special assistant to commissioner Bud Selig. One of his assignments is working on the expansion of MLB’s instant replay. For his advisory role and for his own enjoyment, La Russa has seen a lot of the Cardinals this year. And he is a fan of the way they approach every game.
“You’re never going to beat the Cardinals mentally because they’ll always keep playing,” said La Russa before the Red Sox’ 8-1 Game 1 win. “And that gives you a chance. It’s been identified as ‘the Cardinal Way.’ Playing the game right, the Cardinals have been doing that for years. They not only give you a lot of effort, but they really try to put that effort into playing the game correctly, executing.
“Other teams do it, but some teams are just more relentless about repeating the formula. The Cardinals are wonderful that way. They’ve had a long history, going back to the ’30s and ’40s. It’s really important to recognize the history of what you represent.”
And that is why the 2004 World Series loss to the Red Sox stung. That year, St. Louis earned a World Series berth after coming back to beat the Houston Astros in seven games in the NLCS. But the drama of that series was overshadowed by the Red Sox’ unprecedented comeback from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in the ALCS. Then, of course, the Red Sox swept the Cardinals, ending an 86-year championship drought. And La Russa found himself on the losing side of baseball history.
“One of the most painful memories I have is 2004,” said La Russa, who won three World Series titles in his 33-year career as a manager — two with St. Louis (2006, 2011) and one with the Oakland A’s (1989). “Whether it was the Red Sox fans or the fans that were in for the full season, they did not get the impression about how competitive that ’04 Cardinals team was.
“What you recognize is you’re playing against a team that had just done something historic. And one of the key things that we were looking at is you can celebrate that so much that you’re not ready, that you don’t turn the page to the next one.
“But it was obvious that the Red Sox had caught the moment. They were looking at being four wins away from doing something historic. It was a powerful force on their team.
“I would have rather lost in six or seven games because you feel like you represented and you competed. To lose four in a row was embarrassing, but you do give credit. Terry [Francona] and his staff did a terrific job.
“I know we competed well. We just got beat. They were excited. They were empowered. It was like a big tsunami coming at us.”
Returning to the 2013 Red Sox, La Russa gives credit to their manager, John Farrell, and the entire organization for this season’s about-face. He said Farrell had good preparation for the job in his previous experience as the Red Sox pitching coach, which gave him “a lot of good experiences understanding what it is to be with the Red Sox.” And he cited the offseason additions of players like Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes as other catalysts for success.
“It was pretty clear they brought in competitors — Victorino, Gomes,” said La Russa. “These guys have earned a really good reputation among their peers. They give everything they’ve got.
“It’s fun to watch. John and his staff have done a really good job, but you’ve got the organization as a whole. Put the focus on them, especially on the guys that are playing the game.”
While La Russa was frequently mentioned as a possible successor to Francona in 2011, he said he was finished with managing after the 2011 World Series. While he does miss the excitement of managing in October, he doesn’t long for the grind of the regular season. And he remains comfortable on the sidelines.
But he did come very close to managing the Red Sox back in the winter of 1994-95, when he discussed the job with then-general manager Dan Duquette. He had managed nine years in Oakland, and the Haas family was selling the team.
He remembers talking to Duquette about possible free agent acquisitions in Boston, believing he was on his way to the Hub. But A’s owner Walter A. Haas Jr. took La Russa to lunch and asked him to stay another year.
“That was the end of it, because Mr. Haas was one of the greatest men I’ve ever met in my life,” said La Russa. “My wife and I said, ‘That’s what Walter wants. That’s what Walter gets.’ And I’m really pleased that I went back.
“But being in the American League only at that time, I’d always enjoyed the energy and the support of the Red Sox fans. You like to be in a situation where your sport is one of the religions in town and people talk about it all the time.
“My parents always taught me about chasing the big dream. All I’d ever done was baseball and, at the time, the biggest dream going was the Red Sox winning the World Series.
“I was sure I was coming for 1995. I stayed [in Oakland] and Kevin Kennedy came. But I’ve always had great respect and admiration for Red Sox fans.”